Let's take a quick look at our criminal justice system.
After a defendant engages in criminal conduct and commits a crime:
- Law enforcement will arrest them
- A prosecutor will charge them in the trial court
- They will be found guilty or not guilty
A person may be convicted of a crime following a guilty plea, no-contest plea, plea bargain, or jury trial verdict. At the time of sentencing, a judge will determine the appropriate punishment.
During the sentencing hearing, a judge has discretion in selecting the punishment for a crime. Sentencing for a violent felony like first-degree murder differs from sex offenses or substance abuse cases. The sentencing range varies, depending on many different factors.
In the past, federal courts used an indeterminate sentencing system. The term of imprisonment could have been declared a minimum with no determinate maximum sentence. Shortly after the 1980s, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) was created. The USCC then transitioned towards a determinate sentencing system.
Continue reading for a simple overview of sentencing laws in the United States.
Types of Criminal Sentences
Several different kinds of punishment may be imposed on a convicted criminal defendant. These punishments include:
- Incarceration in county jail (jail sentences are shorter-term)
- Incarceration in state prison (prison sentences are longer-term)
- Death penalty (the greatest sentence in some states)
- Life sentence (except no mandatory life sentences for juveniles, as the Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama)
- Probation (supervised by a probation officer)
- A suspended sentence, which takes effect if conditions such as probation are violated
- Payment of restitution to the crime victim
- Community service
- Drug and alcohol rehabilitation
Court decisions about sentencing vary depending on the criminal offense. Usually, sentencing occurs almost immediately after convictions for infractions and minor misdemeanors. The timing involved in sentencing differs in more complex criminal cases.
Complex criminal cases include serious felonies and violent crimes. In those cases, the sentencing judge usually needs input before deciding. The judge may consult with the prosecutor, defense, and probation department (which prepares recommendations in a presentence report).
Some states have established special drug courts. Judges control these drug courts and focus on rehabilitating people with drug addiction. Other specialty courts include veteran's court and mental health court.
Factors Influencing a Criminal Sentence
After a guilty verdict, the sentencing judge has a range of appropriate sentences already outlined in a criminal statute. Mandatory sentences may apply in some jurisdictions (including federal sentencing guidelines).
The judge can also consider several other case-specific factors, including:
- The defendant's criminal history, or lack thereof
- Three Strikes law in the jurisdiction (prior convictions/felony offenses on the defendant's criminal record may result in a mandatory minimum sentence)
- The nature of the crime, how it was committed, and the impact on victims (i.e., whether injuries resulted)
- The defendant's personal, economic, and social circumstances
- Mitigating factors or aggravating circumstances
- Regret or remorse expressed by the defendant
Appealing a Criminal Sentence
It is part of criminal procedure to allow a criminal defendant to appeal a sentence. This allows the defendant to receive a reduction from a higher court. Arguments for an appeal of a criminal sentence include:
- Incorrect application of the law by the court
- Insufficient evidence to justify the sentence
- Abuse of discretion by the court
- Ineffective counsel, typically followed up by a petition for post-conviction relief
Criminal Sentencing: Related Resources
Do you have further questions about sentencing laws? Consider the links below.
Questions About Sentencing? Talk to a Criminal Law Attorney
Contact a criminal defense attorney today if you have been charged with a crime. If you think you cannot afford a private attorney, look into the public defender's office, as you may qualify.
A defense lawyer can help you make a case for a lighter sentence, either at trial or on appeal. According to the Department of Justice, depending on your state, you may be eligible for a Pretrial Intervention Program. Contact an attorney for more information.